Anti-abortion groups jolted by election defeats


Document Publication: Associated Press - New York, NY

Publication Date: November 11, 2008

Associated press

Despite election setbacks on many fronts, anti-abortion leaders sound more defiant than deflated as they brace for a future with fewer friends in high places.

With Democrats soon to be in full control in Washington, tactics for anti-abortion groups are likely to refocus on street protests, grass-roots activism and state legislation. One major three-day protest is scheduled to start in the nation's capital on Jan. 21, a day after Barack Obama's inauguration as president.

"The election forces the pro-life movement to go back to what we do best - local grass-roots organizing," said the Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, director of the Christian Defense Coalition. "We will not go silently into the night."

At almost every level, last week's election was a stinging defeat for the anti-abortion movement, starting with Obama's presidential victory. Priests for Life said voters "made a grave mistake," while Mahoney's group, in a refrain shared by many conservatives, contended that Obama will be "the most radical pro-abortion president" in U.S. history.

In Congress, supporters of abortion rights now hold 17 more seats in the House and at least four more in the Senate, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. And at the state level, voters in Colorado, South Dakota and California defeated ballot measures that would have banned or restricted abortions.

Obama's election also dashed hopes within the anti-abortion movement for possible Supreme Court vacancies over the next four years to be filled by judges who might support reversal of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision establishing a right to abortion.

The overall outcome "brings about feelings of great disappointment, of anger," said the Rev. Frank Pavone, national director of Priests for Life. "But that disappointment and anger are forms of energy. ...I believe a lot of people on the sidelines for last eight years will now get engaged."

Pavone predicted that activists would stage more mass demonstrations and abortion-clinic vigils. He also said the election results shed light on the movement's weak points, and would prompt new efforts to register anti-abortion voters and mobilize clergy to be more outspoken in future campaigns.

Another outlet for activism is the ever-growing network of local pregnancy centers run by anti-abortion staffers who seek to persuade young women with unintended pregnancies to choose adoption or single motherhood over abortion.

"While legislative efforts to protect the unborn and women from abortion may be limited in future years, the work of pregnancy centers is advancing stronger than ever," said Melinda Delahoyde, president of Care Net. Her network supports 1,100 centers, and is concentrating expansion efforts in black and Hispanic inner-city areas.

Delahoyde said she hoped Obama would live up to his campaign rhetoric and reach out to groups with different views, including the anti-abortion movement.

"We have a lot to bring to the table," she said. "Don't exclude us because we don't line up with you on certain issues."

One of those issues is contraception. Under a Democratic-led government, abortion-rights supporters will call on conservatives to join in an effort to reduce abortions by reducing unintended pregnancies. Anti-abortion leaders say they are unwilling to do this if it means abandoning their abstinence-only approach and supporting greater access to birth control for unmarried women.

"We have a totally different view from other side in how we look at sexuality," said Pavone. "That's where there's no common ground."

Although anti-abortion leaders have abandoned any short-term hopes for favorable legislation out of Congress, they are prepared to lobby intensely if Democrats try to push through a long-pending abortion-rights bill called the Freedom of Choice Act. It would likely override scores of state laws that place limited restrictions on abortion - including parental notification laws and mandatory waiting periods before an abortion.

"We will do everything to be sure it fails - the damage it would do to the pro-life movement would be immeasurable," said Mahoney. "On the scale of 1 to 10, that's No. 11 of what our job is."

Another priority, Mahoney said, would be to insist that any health-care legislation emerging from the new Congress does not open the door to any federal funding of abortions.

Within the abortion-rights movement, the election results were viewed as a comprehensive victory, and a repudiation of their rivals.

"The hardline, divisive tactics they've used have been resoundingly rejected," said Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "We'll probably see some splintering within the conservative community. ...I'd hope some of the folks on the right, if their goal is to reduce the need for abortions, would link arms with us."

But for now, anti-abortion leaders are eager to appear undaunted.

"Any time you have a loss like that, you have an opportunity to reassess and come back stronger," said Charmaine Yoest, president of Americans United for Life. "If they want to see this as a big loss that will set us back, that's OK. Our people are very energized, and ready for Round Two."

To Alesha Doan, a University of Kansas political scientist who studies the anti-abortion movement, the feisty response and the vows of street protests make sense.

"I'd be shocked if the pro-life movement stopped protesting - that's been the area where they've had success in closing some abortion clinics," she said. "If you compromise, you lose the core of the movement."

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